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Ecclesiastes: 2:19-20

We continue.

Ecclesiastes 2:19: And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity.

This is in reference to the man who shall be after me who will inherit the labor (whether alienated or not) of this world. Who knows?

I want to take a moment and just glory in the bizarre and complicated reflexiveness of the wording—b’kol amalee she-amal’tee v’shekhakham’tee, the whole of the labour of my labour and my wisdom. I just love that. Wisdom, of course, is a callback to the earlier part of the sentence as well as to the, well, the whole topic at hand. The language here is both dense and repetitious, almost incantatory in sound. Liturgical. I like it, is what I’m saying.

As for the content… I continue to think that Kohelet uses rhetorical questions to imply answers. And it’s more than that: who knows is what Mordechai says to Esther in 4:14, who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this? The answer of course is that the Divine knows. The Divine knows whether the one who follows you is wise or foolish. You don’t. You know what you do—your wisdom is under the sun. The Divine Wisdom is not under the sun, or not only under the sun, and encompasses both the heavens and the future.

Digression, I guess: in addition to the Esther mi yodea reference, which comes up a lot for me because as it happens it was a favorite topic of the Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Beth Bolshoi, for most Ashkenazim the big reference for mi yodea is a Passover song called Echod Mi Yodea: “Who knows one?” For those who don’t know it, it’s a counting song, with each verse beginning with a number as Who knows seven?/I know seven!/Seven are the days of the week and then counting down until one. One is the Divine, of course: echod eloheinu, eloheinu eloheinu eloheinu, she-bashamaim uva’aretz. One is our Lord (our Lord, our Lord, our Lord), in the heavens and the earth. While in this song it is the singer, not the Divine, who is the answer to the non-rhetorical who knows, I do like that the chorus of the song appears to call back to Kohelet’s under the sun construction, reminding us that eloheinu is not takhat ha-shemesh. I would also kinda like to be able to draw some inference from the use of know as a euphemism for sex, but that seems difficult to apply here. End Digression.

Kohelet, having made it clear that the work of this world can be used wisely or foolishly by our followers, concludes the sentence: gam-zeh hevel this is entirely futile. Or, perhaps, all this is futile. Is it just me that hears zeh (this) in this context as having the work under the sun as its antecedent? That is: Kohelet claims to have laboured the labour (and wisened up the wisdom) under the sun, for the benefit of his heir, and who knows if that heir will be wise or foolish, and all of this is futile.

The next verse:

Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun.

Speaking, again, to his heart as a kind of separate self, Kohelet turns (s’vov) to despair to his heart, of kol he-amal she-amal’tee (by the way, here it is not my labour that I laboured but just the labour that I laboured) under the sun.

If we read for contrast (as I have been) then we are brought back to ask again: if what is under the sun is futile, then what is not futile? What labour, and what wisdom, is not under the sun? That which is for eloheinu, she-bashamaim uva’aretz, of course. For the Divine, who knows who is to follow, fools or wise folk.

I’ll just add, tho’ it detracts from my point, that the traditional interpretation, which considers Kohelet to be Solomon the Wise, makes this verse specifically about Reheboam. Solomon builds a kingdom, and his children squander it. I have to say I find that unsatisfying as an interpretation, as (a) Solomon was a terrible king who didn’t so much build the kingdom as inherit it through the disastrous follies of his siblings, and (2) if Solomon doesn’t know whether Reheboam will be a successful king then Solomon is not as wise as he is proverbially cracked up to be. I can certainly accept that Kohelet is referencing Solomon, in the sense of bringing to mind that David was followed by Solomon, and Solomon by Reheboam, and so don’t you expect to do any better with your worldly heirs.

Actually, I’m not sure, musing on it, that one couldn’t do a good deal with that—we don’t hear much about David teaching Solomon piety, even of his ecstatic kind, and we certainly don’t hear much about Solomon teaching Reheboam to work for things that are not under the sun. Contrast this line of succession Ely’s teaching of Samuel (and, I suppose, Samuel’s of Saul and then David) and perhaps we can say that the one who knows whether his follower will be wise or foolish is the one who teaches the follower not to seek after the futile things under the sun, but to focus on the Divine, who is both on earth and in the heavens.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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